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Living and Working in Poverty

Poor relief

At the beginning of the 19th century, people living in extreme poverty had to apply to their parish for poor relief. The homeless had no choice but to enter the workhouse where they would work long hours in return for board and lodging.

Men were given hard manual work such as stone breaking. Women did domestic work such as cleaning or helping in the kitchen or laundry. The workhouse was a cruel place and families would be split up with men, women and children forced to live separately. Children from the age of 13 were sent out to work in service.
At this time there were three parish workhouses in Truro.

Poor Law Union

The Truro Poor Law Union was formed in 1834, with the introduction of the Poor Law Amendment Act. The Union was run locally by a Board of Guardians, who were elected by rate payers of the 24 parishes that formed the Union including St Agnes on the north coast, St Mawes on the Roseland and Feock on the south coast.

The Guardians met weekly and administered the Poor Law under the direction of the Poor Law Commission in London. They were dissolved in 1930.

The image to the right depicts the Poor Law Union - Farewell meeting of the Board of Guardians in 1930.
Poor Law Union

Kenwyn Workhouse

Kenwyn Workhouse was situated at the top of Kenwyn Street, with the entrance at the corner of the junction with City Road, mainly housed able bodied men. “There was a Courtyard in the centre and the entrance gate was just at the corner at the junction of the two roads.”

It was recalled, “Such pudden full of figs and such ample supply of gravey as to make the lips of youngsters who peered thro’ the chinks of the door water, for be it known that those inside this particular house fared well more so than many of the folk outside. The folk lived in separate apartments; it was more like a cluster of cottages with a dining hall supplied by a common kitchen, than the present Workhouse style of management. There were also two apartments for mad people in which the poor unfortunates were confined chained as a brute to the bed”.

“Such pudden full of figs and such ample supply of gravey as to make the lips of youngsters who peered thro’ the chinks of the door water..." 


St Mary’s Workhouse

St Mary’s Workhouse was first situated in St Clement Street, but because of the growing number of poor in the parish, a new workhouse was built in 1779 off Pydar Street at Moresk, formerly known as goodwives lane.

In 1891 Truro Council acquired these buildings for an infectious disease hospital and despite strong opposition “that St Mary’s School nearby would involve the risk of spread of infection to the children there, that the drainage down to the river would carry with it all manner of microbes, bacilli and other horrors, and that established house property in the neighbourhood would be ruined”, the scheme went ahead and the Truro Isolation Hospital opened in 1893 until 1925 and treated many cases of diphtheria, scarlet fever, typhoid fever, erysipelas, tuberculosis and measles. The building was demolished in 1966.

The images to the right depicts St Mary's workhouse from the rear and the Truro isolation Hospital.

St Mary's WorkhouseTruro Isolation Hospital

St Clement Workhouse

St Clement Workhouse, built in 1829 at the top of St Clements Hill, housed mainly women and children. It employed a master and matron and a school teacher, and in 1841 it housed 124 paupers. Today the building has been divided into two private homes.

The Union Workhouse

The Union Workhouse was built on 12 acres of land, at the top of Tregolls Road, to house 450 inmates.

It opened in 1851 and was a self contained unit; pigs and horses were kept and crops were grown. Inmates from Kenwyn, St Mary’s and St Clement workhouses were moved there and the parish workhouse buildings were sold off.

The building, designed by the architect, William Harris, followed the popular cruciform plan which was a common design for workhouses at this period. The building costs amounted to £12,196.15s.0d. The master and matron were responsible for the daily running of the workhouse. They were assisted by a school master, school mistress, nurse, porter, cook and medical officer.

New arrivals would be stripped, bathed and issued with a workhouse uniform made from very coarse material. their own clothes would be washed, disinfected and only returned to them when they left the workhouse.

During the admission procedure, the paupers were classed and each class was assigned a ward or separate building and yard where they were to remain. This resulted in families being separated from each other.

Class 1: Men infirm through age or any other cause.
Class 2: Able-bodied men, and youths above the age of fifteen years.
Class 3: Boys above the age of seven years and under that of fifteen.
Class 4: Women infirm through age or any other cause.
Class 5: Able-bodied women, and girls above the age of fifteen years.
Class 6: Girls above the age of seven years and under that of fifteen.
Class 7: Children under seven years of age.

Following examination by the Workhouse Medical Officer

Following examination by the Workhouse Medical Officer, those with an illness would be placed in the infirmary which was in separate building. They were given a low narrow bedstead, and a straw mattress. There was only one nurse, who was untrained and no night nurse, so the washing of patients and bed-making was the duty of the inmates. The infirmary only had one bathroom, which was supplied with cold water only. When required, hot water had to be carried from a copper in the infirmary laundry.

As a further loss to their dignity, the inmates were bathed weekly and the men were shaved. They could not leave the workhouse without permission, but any pauper could discharge himself on giving ‘reasonable notice’ (3 hours). Leaving the workhouse without permission would result in the pauper being charged with theft of Union property, his workhouse uniform!

Meals were made from the cheapest ingredients. Milk was often diluted with water, fruit was rarely included but on Christmas Day and other special occasions the inmates were treated to roast beef, plum pudding, tea and cake. 

The image to the right depicts the Truro Union Workhouse .

Truros Workhouses

Advertisements were placed

Advertisements were placed in the local newspaper every six months for tenders for supplies and provisions for the workhouse which would include bread, meat, groceries, drapery, clothing, coal and straw.

During World War I, the building was used as the Truro Auxiliary Naval Hospital. During that time the inmates were boarded out but were returned to the workhouse at the end of the War when the Red Cross handed back the building to the Board of Guardians. In 1929, the Local Government Act abolished Boards of Guardians.

All their powers and responsibilities were transferred to the Public Assistance Committee of Cornwall County Council. Between 1940 and 1948, the building was used as the County Isolation Hospital and then became St Clement Hospital in 1948 with the introduction of the National Health Service. In 1974 the buildings were used as the administrative base for the Cornwall Area Health Authority.

The term ‘workhouse’ was replaced by ‘Poor Law Institution’ in 1913, but the social stigma attached to the workhouse by the residents of Truro remained for many years. Today the original workhouse buildings still remain but have been re-developed into residential apartments now known as Yew Tree Court, and the surrounding land has been sold for housing.

The image to the right depicts the Union Workhouse, during its use as the Truro Auxiliary Naval Hospital.
Auxilliary Hospital

“Board of Guardians have provided public spirited men and women with an opportunity to render a valuable public service, for no reward, not even the reward of gratitude, for the public are consistently indifferent to the labours of public bodies, and think of them only when something demands their criticism. The common lot of public authorities is a cold indifference from the public when things go well, and much pungent fault finding at other times.”
Royal Cornwall Gazette 26 March, 1930.

After the workhouses closed

Even after the workhouses closed, living conditions remained hard for some into the Twentieth Century. Pat Palmer describes how her family was refused blankets when she was a child.

Click below to listen to Pat Palmer talk about blankets being refused.

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